Jessica Molaskey: Portraits of Joni

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Jessica Molaskey

Portraits of Joni

Ghostlight Deluxe

September 8, 2017

Reviewed by John Hoglund for Cabaret Scenes

Some albums are simply worth waiting for. A few years ago, Jessica Molaskey offered an evening of Joni Mitchell songs as part of Lincoln Center’s Songbook Series in the Allen Room. She made a point of referring to herself as an actor first and a singer second. Now, Ghostlight Records has released her latest CD, Portraits of Joni (the same title as her show).

Molaskey is a brave artist. It’s no easy task to take on the complex ramblings of an  iconic singer/songwriter on the level of Mitchell, who has covered wide-ranging genres of folk, pop, rock, and jazz. The acclaimed Canadian (who is also a painter) has made an indelible mark on pop music, with Rolling Stone calling her “one of the greatest songwriters ever,” and AllMusic (the respected online music guide) gushing, “Joni Mitchell may stand as the most important and influential female recording artist of the late 20th century.” Aside from all the honors and fanfare, Mitchell’s profound lyrics have always struck a chord with the feminine mystique. Her songs are often rooted in social and environmental issues, as well musings about love and disillusionment, with a hearty dose of confusion and ecstasy. Any tribute to the lady is a challenge. With this CD, Molaskey rises to the occasion and proves she is her own force to be reckoned with as a committed interpreter of some devastating and delightful story songs about life’s foibles. This is a demanding task that makes for an exceptional disc on many levels. She sails through it all with imperturbable self-possession on every cut.

In her liner notes, Molaskey refers to Mitchell’s gift for writing songs like paintings: “Joni’s self- portraits are beautiful and fragile and often filled with conflict and joy.” That basically sums up the heart of this album. At times whimsical and intense, it is a compilation of emotions that cascade like ripples on a stream. Molaskey captures Mitchell’s zeal through intelligent interpretations throughout.

For starters, she makes each song distinctly her own. Backed by a band of impeccable, sensitive musicians breezing through mostly jazz-tinged arrangements co-written with husband John Pizzarelli (except for four cuts: “Both Sides Now” and “All I Want” by Larry Goldings; “Little Green” arranged by Jessica with daughter Madeleine Pizzarelli; and “Blue” based on an arrangement by Jason Robert Brown), the handsomely packaged album is a must for all Mitchell fans. There are endless tributes to Mitchell and her oeuvre out there. All have their own merits. One quality that separates this tribute from the others, aside from Molaskey’s heartfelt renditions, is her ability to show meaningful lyric perception.

On a cool, upbeat “Help Me” that kicks off the disc, she shows a natural understanding of this material. Singing in a lyrical alto with a fine belt, she is particularly effective on a bright arrangement of “In France, They Kiss on Main Street,” with a strong guitar solo by John, that is a highlight. She has fun with the boozy lady who was “Raised on Robbery.” The ripping pathos of “A Case of You” is given a haunting treatment that is achingly pure—””Go to him, stay with him if you can/ But be prepared to bleed”.” Few lyricists can capture pain like that.

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Molaskey’s skillful abilities peak on Mitchell’s best-known song, the beloved “Both Sides Now,” with Goldings’ supple accompaniment on piano and organ. Here, she gives the words a slower-paced, more plaintive reading than usual, giving the words a mournful ring that just concludes with a shattering “I really don’t know life at all.” Another standout is the wrenching “Little Green,” about giving up a baby for adoption, sung as a duet with daughter Madeleine and with John on guitar. It is chilling. The popular “Big Yellow Taxi” caps the CD to a songwriter who says things like few others: “Don’t it always seem to go/That you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone.”

Aside from the brilliance of John Pizzarelli (various guitars/background vocals) and Madeleine Pizzarelli (acoustic steel string guitar/vocals), the album features respected jazz musicians Larry Goldings on piano and organ, Randy Brecker (trumpet), Duduka Da Fonseca (drums/percussion), Leo Traversa (electric bass), Gary Haase (double bass), Harry Allen (tenor saxophone), Julian Waterall Pollack (piano fills/keyboard synth), Mike Karn (double bass), Kevin Kanner (drums), and Helio Alves (piano).

Mitchell is so revered by her contemporaries, and will be long after she is gone.

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This album will join the ranks as one that carries on the legacy as it celebrates the uniqueness that is Joni Mitchell. Like Bob Dylan, she is in her own league.

John Hoglund

For over 30 years, John Hoglund has been a respected entertainment writer covering cabaret, jazz, theater and recordings. His writings have appeared in numerous outlets including the Bistro Bits column for Back Stage. John moderated seminars and forums for the International Cabaret Conference At Yale. He produced many celebrity fundraisers in NYC including one of the first benefits after 9/11: “HeartSong:The Heroes' Concert” at The Bottom Line featuring 36 major stars. He co-produced “HeartSong2: The Heroes' Concert” for Katrina victims at Symphony Space and “Miracle On 35th Street” with a star-studded lineup. Other fund raising efforts include the first benefits for Broadway Cares and God's Love, We Deliver. John served on the Board of Directors of MAC for 12 years. He is well known for championing new and rising talents.